So I'm riffing through my mail the other day when I come to the Valpak coupons envelope. All the usual suspects were there. Hair salons, deck builders, tanning salons, and fast-food advertisements filling the blue envelope. One of the flyers did catch my eye, though, as it advertised a church. What a great concept. The House of the Holy as Junk Mail! See the Lord's work, right next to the coupons for Little Caesars. Pizza, Pizza. Jesus, Jesus. (Authors Note: This joke worked back in 2002.)
I guess the church industry is like any other business, as you have to keep them coming through the doors. It just seems like some things are sacred and having religious institutions being promoted next to home siding companies is something that strikes me as a bit odd. I guess there is a lot of competition in the God biz, so you have to reach them anyway you can. I just wonder what is next?
(Church salesman trying to close the deal.)
Let's cut to the chase. What do I need to do today to get you to join this church? Now before you answer, let me mention that at our house of worship, we have communion every week, not just once a month. During the communion we offer a choice of a merlot or a chablis. Who says just because it signifies the blood of Christ that it can't be delicious? During the body of Christ part, we serve Chicken in a Biscuit, instead of the flavorless wafers that many of our competitors offer. We are non-denominational, so we deliver a customized service. For example, if you are Catholic, we have a Priest on staff. Between the hours of 4 to 6 pm on Fridays, Father Murphy offers 2-for-1 absolution of sins. We call this God's Happy Hour. It's very popular with the busy Christian.
Specific to the flyer I received in the mail, the church promised a more contemporary way of worshipping Christ. Considering that it had been over 20 years since I had set foot in one, I thought a more modern approach to Christianity sounded worth checking out. Add to this that it was less than a mile away and I figured I could give it a chance. Let me add that this was no small sacrifice, as the Sunday I chose was the start of the NFL season. I have spent most of my life following the mantra that Steve Martin offered in one of his monologues which was "I believe in going to church every Sunday, unless there is a game on."
Considering my football dilemma, I decided to go to the early service at 9 am, so I could catch the pre-game shows, but when the alarm rang, my body reminded me I hadn’t been up before 10 am on Sunday in years. It was like some greater being commanded me to rollover in bed, catch some more zzz’s and hit the 10:30 am service.
Thinking about the 2 services made me realize how much stand-up comics and ministers have in common.
I do 2 shows on the weekend, also.
We are both performers, as stage presence has as much to do with our success as the actual message we convey.
The big difference, besides our subject matter is how we go about getting paid. I admire that men of the cloth have the faith to pass the offering plate, instead of like in my profession where we have a cover charge. Of course, the church knows that people will tithe, as the threat of the minister talking to his boss about them is pretty strong motivation. Can you imagine if a stand-up comic started passing an offering plate around, instead of counting on the door money?
(Audience member internally contemplating this idea.) "Well, he is pretty funny and I've had a great time, but 10 bucks would buy me a couple more drinks. I'm sure someone else in this joint will make up for me."
Now I should explain that despite my more recent spotty record, the first 12 years of my life would reveal a perfect church attendance record. I went to Sunday morning and evening services, plus Thursday night services, as well. My family's zeal for bible-thumpin' was so complete that we went to church even when we were out of town or on vacation. On days that even Billy Sunday would have called in sick, I was expected to keep up my Cal Ripken-like streak.
If you were to guess that I grew up under the tutelage of a couple of holy rollers, you would be correct. My family was part of a fundamentalist Christian sect who believed in no dancing or PG-rated movies. We weren't Jehovah Witness, but we weren't averse to knocking on your door and preaching our demonination's dogma. I can remember witnessing to complete strangers about the eternal damnation that they were doomed to if they didn't accept Jesus as their personal savior. Considering I was 6 years old and often did this while my Mom was trying on clothes in a department store dressing room, it's amazing someone didn't smack this budding Marjoe Gortner across the pie-hole.
Somewhere between one of my Father's numerous manic depressive meltdowns, in which he would get into a vicious argument with the Pastor and decide to leave for another church, our family fell away from organized religion. I don't blame my Dad for not feeling a strong connection to the church, as my lack of religious fervor was cemented by right-wing hypocrites like Jim Bakker, Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, etc. Unlike men like Donald Wildmon, who come out against things they have never seen or experienced, I decided, despite my preconcieved notions about the coupon flyer church, I should visit it before I made my final judgement.
It was early for me, but I did make it to the 10:30 service. On my way in to the sanctuary, a very nice older man introduced himself to me. He welcomed me to the church and asked me my name and what I did for a living. Initially, I considered telling him I sell life insurance, just to end the conversation, but I decided to tell the truth. Proving that the world is a very small place, he told me his son was also a comedian, who lived in LA. If I wasn't Agnostic, I would've thought that God was having some cosmic fun with me.
Sitting down in my pew, I noticed that most everyone was dressed casually. Many of the men were in golf shirts, which was fitting since a course is across the street. Even the pastor had a Polo shirt on, which was strange considering that at the the church I grew up in, everyone wore his or her Sunday best. The typical attire here made me think that God had sent an email out proclaiming that casual Friday is cool on the Sabbath, as well.
The casual style reminded me of an event from my childhood. My parents used to go to a Bible retreat each summer in Colorado. Sharing the fellowship they were filled with, my Parents invited many people they met there to stay with us, if they were passing by through Iowa. One day, a guy with long-hair and a beard, showed up at our house and stayed with us for a couple of nights. He was a guy my parents had met at the retreat and as seemingly uncomfortable they were having a hippie stay at our home, their Christian obligation overrode their trepidation.
Well being active members of our church, Dad was a deacon/usher and Mom was singing in the choir, so they had me sit with our hippie houseguest in the back of the sanctuary. In his ripped bell-bottom jeans and t-shirt, he stood out like Pacman Jones at a square dance. I'm guessing that the most offensive part of his appearance was his flowing locks and long beard. I felt this was kind of hypocritical since he looked most similar to the guy we were there to worship. The thing that really set people off against him was that he would clap after every hymn was done. You would have thought the rest of the congregation believed he was part of the Mansion family, considering their reaction to this real-life Jesus Freak.
I bring this story up because I realize now that our houseguest was ahead of his time. Not only did the church I was sitting in last Sunday follow his casual clothing example, but after every time the soloist sang, the rest of the congregation clapped approvingly.
A quick review of the soloist would be that he was good singer who seemed deeply influenced by Al Jarreau. I kept thinking he was going to break into a medley of Onward Christian Soldiers, We're in this Love Together, and Theme from Moonlighting every time he opened his mouth. Another hipper touch was the background music, which was recorded. It was like Christian kareoke. Too bad they didn't offer the congregation fill-out slips to sing their favorite Christian hymn. I would have sung Rock of Ages reverentially, while gyrating on the mic like Axl Rose during his prime.
When it came time for me to sing with everyone, I was surprised that I had my church singing voice intact. If you don't know what this style is like, it's a very nasally way of singing which is in the same tone that Black stand-up comics use when portraying a White person.
Music is the biggest reason that Black churches are more fun than White ones. Black people sing much more naturally at their places of worship. This is why singers like Aretha Franklin and Al Green were discovered in Gospel churches. Do you think that Neil Young or Robert Plant sang the way they do now, when they attended Sunday services during their formative years?
(Setting. Synagogue in Hibbing, Minnesota. 1955.) Oy vey. What is that Zimmerman boy warbling about? I can't understand a word he's saying. He sounds like he swallowed helium, doncha know. -a passage from the script I'm writing titled The Young Bob Dylan.
After another hymn, all the children of the church came up to the stage and ignored the little sermon the youth pastor had crafted for them. None of the kids had anything to offer the pastor when he asked them questions during his interactive presentation.
Back when my brother Matt was in these kid's age group, he had no qualms about answering questions and sometimes didn't even wait for a question before he offered up his thoughts. One time the Pastor asked the children where they were going to eat after the service and my young brother excitedly proclaimed he was going to Ken-Fucky Fried Chicken. While some of the congregation snickered like Beavis and Butthead, my easily combustible Father wasn't one of them.
I can remember when I was 5 or 6, I used to sit up with my friends in the second row of the pews and listen to the sermon. One Sunday night, while awaiting our special sermon, I killed some time by pulling out a small foil pocket I had found while going through my Dad's dresser drawers before church. I proceeded to rip the packet open and was happy to discover that it was a funny-looking balloon. I then decided I should blow it up, which was fairly tricky, since it was lubricated for some reason. The closest adult male saw what was going on and tried to reach over the pew to take it away from me. It was a slippery struggle, which I'm sure was quite a spectacle.
On the car ride home, my Parents seemed very silent, which I knew was not a good thing. When we got home, my Father told me to go my room because he needed to have a talk with me. Actually, when he entered my room there wasn't much talking, as he whipped the bejesus (Jesus' alter-ego) out of me. I kept asking my Dad why he was doing this and his answer was that I shouldn't be going through his dresser. I realized then that this wasn't about the dresser and between yelps and cries, I begged him to tell me what it was really about. His answer during his Marquis de Sade parental guidance was that "it was none of my business and I shouldn't have been snooping through his things." Fortunately, we weren't Catholic or the whole condom/birth control thing would have been even more dicey.
My favorite memory of church was when I was playing Blackjack in the church balcony, with a couple of my friends. We were around 10 years old and noticed that it was empty. One of us must have been too noisy because an usher came up to check things out. When he saw the money in the pot, he offered up a couple of choices. He could tell our Fathers or he could take the money and put it in the offering plate. I think you know my choice. Considering what my Dad had done to me for something I had no idea was wrong, I felt completely lucky in just losing some paper route scratch.
To close out my recent church experience, the rest of the service was good and the pastor had a very easy-going style that lacked the fire and brimstone condemnation that turns me off about many preachers. I can see why some of the flock enjoyed the comraderie of similar thinking believers.
If anyone would have asked me what I was thankful for on my way out of the church it would have been that the service ended quickly enough that I was able to catch the opening kickoff. My prayers were answered. Hallelujuah! Glory to the game.
(Postscript: This essay was written in 2001 for my book Dysfunctional Thoughts of a 21st Century Man. The impetus that made me think about this story was someone had recently asked me to attend their church. I thanked them, but turned them down, as the whole process leaves me empty. If it doesn't for you, congrats. Having that much faith much be reassuring. The only higher beings that I can comprehend have just finished a bong hit.)